For decades, Bollywood has been content to churn out Hindi song-and-dance extravaganzas, secure in its position as the continent’s largest filmmaking centre.
But now a Telugu-language battle epic from southern India’s rival “Tollywood” has broken the country’s box office records and shaken Mumbai’s traditional big screen dominance.
Baahubali: the Beginning, the tale of feuding brothers who fight for control of an ancient kingdom, has earned 300 crore rupees (£30m) at the international box office in just eight days, smashing all records for Tollywood - southern Indian - films.
Laden with special effects and gravity-defying fight sequences, Baahubali has won plaudits for its Hollywood-style production values, prompting comparisons to Lord of the Rings and James Cameron’s blockbusters.
The vision of filmmaker SS Rajamouli, 41, based in Hyderabad, capital of the southern state of Telangana, Baahubali took three years to produce and is India’s most expensive film ever, with a budget of £25m.
What has unsettled Bollywood’s establishment is the fear that Baahubali’s global success will shift the centre of a regionally-divided Indian film industry away from Mumbai.
Baahubali (Strong Man in Hindi) was shot in Telugu, the native language of Telangana. Its release was accompanied by a marketing budget beyond most Bollywood films, with the producers unveiling the “world’s largest poster”, stretching to 51,000 sq ft (4,738 sq m).
Opening in 4,000 screens worldwide and described as his “masterpiece”, Rajamouli’s film seduced critics and audiences with breathtaking scenes of mountain flight and a 40-minute climactic battle sequence.
Baahubali has also been dubbed into Hindi and immediately attracted Bollywood’s regular cinemagoers, setting a new box office record for a dubbed Indian film of £5m inside a week.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
Salman Khan, the Bollywood star and producer, whose own new film Bajrangi Bhaijaan was overshadowed by the phenomenon, admitted: “Baahubali is a good film and our (Bollywood) cinema should try to match its success. These numbers of the film do scare you.”
Ram Gopal Varma, a Bollywood writer-director, said Baahubali should be “a wake-up call to all stars to look beyond themselves to become bigger… otherwise they will be relegated to the bottom rungs. In an industry jungle of lions, tigers, pythons and elephants, the Baahubali dinosaur arrived and now the survival rules will have to change.”
As well as the challenge from Telugu’s “Tollywood”, the Tamil-language cinema of “Kollywood” centred around the Chennai neighbourhood of Kodambakkam, is also setting new standards. Tamil director Shankar demonstrates greater flair with camerawork and ingenuity in fight scenes than his Bollywood contemporaries, critics say.
Sudha G Tilak, an arts writer based in Delhi, said: “Southern India is producing more films than Bollywood and with production values that compare to anywhere in the world. Bollywood’s stories have lived in a comfort zone for some time.”
Baahubali’s succeeded, Ms Tilak said, because it “tells a traditional Indian folklore story of warring princes matched with state-of-the-art special effects. It’s taken everywhere by storm.”
Tensions between the south and Mumbai are played out behind the scenes. Southern India produces many female stars who are accepted by the Mumbai industry but male actors are not afforded the same opportunities.
Ms Tilak said: “It’s similar to the way black actors do not get top billing in Hollywood. There is some resistance in the Hindi film industry. I look forward to the say when Southern India’s stars have their own wax statues in Madame Tussauds.”
Rajamouli told the Times of India: “I know that if you have a universal theme and a good story told well, it will work everywhere. The success of Baahubali across the country proves my theory right.”
The Baahubali story is just beginning. An edited version, paring down its two and-a-half hours running time for sale to international audiences which have yet to succumb is being prepared. And in true Hollywood style, the concluding chapter, Baahubali Part II, is shooting now for release next year.
Full of many magical moments brilliantly executed… nothing less than a landmark achievement made by an Indian filmmaker. A daringly brave, never before kind of Herculean triumph achieved in Indian filmmaking.
Bobby Sing – influential Bollywood film critic at bobbytalkscinema.com
You can see S.S. Rajamouli’s varied influences in places: James Cameron-like dreamy vistas of hill, waterfall and greenery, Ang Lee’s flying-through-the-air-acrobatics, Peter Jackson’s stretching-out-for-miles crowded battlefields, J.R.R. Tolkien’s plug-ugly trolls.
The Indian Express
Baahubali, despite its epic dimensions, fails at some level to draw us into the narrative. If Rajamouli thought his special effects team that drummed up outstanding imagery – lovely waterfalls, magnificent snow-covered mountains and an awesome terrain of the kingdom – would cover up the weaknesses of the film, he was wrong… all sound and spectacle but little else.
The story has been told many times before – a child is born destined for greatness and as a man vanquishes the forces of evil – but in the confident hands of director S.S. Rajamouli, the tale gets potent new life. It’s possible to enjoy the film as pure entertainment even without being privy to the superlatives surrounding it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies